Initiation

image from The Penitents
image from The Penitents

Erin gazed up at the darkened house. Situated at the top of a small hill, it had a sense of isolation about it, even though the neighboring houses weren’t particularly far away. She reflected back on the sight of the house on the night she took the vow of pledgeship. Although she had seen it before, it was that night that she first truly appreciated the magnificence of the old structure. Beautiful though it was in daylight, nothing quite compared to the flickering of real candlelight streaming from the windows, infusing the stone walls with a subtle glow of life.

The house was dark tonight. Dark, mysterious, and full of secrets. Secrets she was only beginning to understand.

***

Erin never thought she would join a fraternity. For one thing, she was a girl, and figured that pretty much ruled the option out. Not that she would consider a sorority either; the thought of living with a house full of girls was less appealing than even her cramped dorm room and neat-freak roommate. Besides, she wasn’t into the whole party scene. At least that’s what she thought when she first arrived at the university.

All that had changed when she learned about the Betas. They were different, a fraternity focused on academics in addition to socializing, and open to both men and women. One of the sophomores in her major had dragged her along to a party a few weeks into the semester. Between the discussions of quantum physics, D&D crew in the corner, and the chess tournament on the porch, it was almost easy to avoid the groups engaging in the more typical drinking games. Plus, they had served her a plain coke without even an awkward glance. She belonged.

And then there was Richard. He was a junior philosophy/math double major and a picture-perfect nerd complete with square glasses, a slight build, and a clean pressed shirt. He was just missing the pocket protector, she remembered thinking. Though he was far from the most boisterous person that night, he did have a certain magnetism. Enough to draw her into a chess game with him, even though she had only the most rudimentary understanding of the game.

He defeated her soundly, of course, but she lasted long enough to get into a decent conversation with him during the game, a conversation that to her delight he continued after the game ended. They had spent the rest of the party casually chatting about classes, video games, favorite places to study, and nothing in particular. When he left her outside her dorm that night she had decided to pledge, if for no other reason than to get the chance to see him again.

***

“Are you sure you want to go through with this? It is not too late to turn back. No one will think any less of you.”

Erin’s gaze flickered back to her guide in the long black robe. The candle in her lantern flickered in the stillness of the night, lending an ominous air to the scene. The Samantha who regally stood before her tonight was not the same as the friend who had helped her drunkenly hobble back to her dorm singing Disney songs all the way after a successful if sloppy Halloween party. No, tonight was as far removed from that side of fraternal life as if she had stepped into an alternate universe brimming with eerie significance.

“Yes,” she replied, not needing to think about it. This felt right. She was scared. But she was sure.

***

Pledging certainly afforded Erin plenty of opportunity to get to know Richard. At her first meeting with the rest of her pledge class, Erin was told that each pledge was traditionally paired with an active member in a big brother/big sister arrangement to help them learn about fraternal life and ensure they kept up with their coursework as their academic record would reflect well on the organization. These pairings, and the resulting “families” created strong bonds of friendship. Her elation when she found out that Richard had chosen her as his little was tempered by the dread of showing him her grades from her first assignments.

Mercifully, Erin’s panic did not have much time to fester as Richard approached her immediately after the meeting and took her to the house library to discuss her performance. He had been disappointed, of course, but was also very supportive. At least, she thought, it was easier to have this conversation with someone who was almost a peer rather than having to explain her performance to her faculty adviser if things got any worse. They had talked all night. By the time they left the house, the first hints of sunrise were warming the horizon and Erin had decided to take his advice and make a few modifications to her course schedule. Her parents would not be pleased. She groaned at the thought of breaking the news to them. Deciding to just get it over with, she rolled over, grabbed her cell phone, and called home. It went to voicemail. Not surprising, she realized, as it was 5am.

“Hi Mom. I’m ok. I’m dropping ‘Differential Equations’ and taking up ‘Field Experience in Elementary Education’ instead. Oh, and by the way, I’ve decided to join a frat. Hope you and Dad are having fun now that the kidlets are gone. Talk to you later!”

Her roommate woke at the sound of this one-sided conversation and gave Erin a questioning if somewhat sleepily irritated look. Not wanting to discuss the issue at the moment, Erin returned a half-sleepy smile, rolled over, and tried to get to sleep.

As she drifted off she couldn’t help but dwell on Richard’s stern expression as he had instructed her to meet him at the chapter house at six the following night for what he called “an intense discussion of the consequences of failing to fulfill academic expectations.”

***

Samantha’s expression was unchanged. Her newfound sternness emphasized by the uplighting from her lantern. She continued, “You will be tested. The vow you are about to take will result in lifelong obligations to our order. Your commitment must be absolute. Are you sure you wish to continue?”

“Yes” Erin replied again.

Again Samantha the Guide continued, her voice strong and powerful, but soft and unhurried, “It will be painful. ”

This Erin knew. It had been made clear to me the night before that this would be no simple ritual.

***

Her definition of “discussion” was decidedly different than Richard’s. Sure, they both involved words, but in Richard’s mind it also involved a paddle. It had been sitting on the desk in front of him when she walked into the room in the corner of the basement for their meeting. She had balked at the door as soon as she saw the menacing shape on the desk, and looked at him questioningly, “W-What’s that for?”

“Relax. We really are just here to talk,” Richard said. Gesturing almost apologetically at the paddle he continued, “Yes, we will be talking about that, but there’s no need to be worried. It’s part of the tradition of our order, albeit an optional part. The rest of your pledge class will be learning of all this in a few weeks. However, after our discussion last night I spoke with the pledgemaster who agreed that I could introduce you to this tradition a bit earlier.”

Despite the rather ominous content of his introduction, Erin couldn’t help but be intrigued. She hesitantly took her seat on the other side of the desk and eyed the paddle- aware that Richard was carefully watching her. “What do you mean?” Erin finally asked.

“As you will learn, our order was founded as a more typical fraternity with all the practices that are typically associated with such an organization. It was only within the last forty years or so that the focus changed to a more academic one and the membership was expanded to include women. For obvious reasons, some traditions were left behind, at least officially.”

Richard peered at her to judge her reaction before continuing. “Although the paddle featured prominently in our early history, it has somewhat fallen into disuse. However, some of our members, those who appreciate having more rigid and established consequences, have continued the practice. This is perhaps one of the greatest secrets of our order. Nearly all of us aspire to some sort of high-powered profession, and this practice isn’t consistent with the image required in such a career. Remember, you are bound by your oath of pledgeship not to reveal any of this outside our organization and, until such time as they are made aware in the usual way, you are not to discuss this with your fellow pledges.”

“Why are you telling me this now?” Erin asked, worried about what his answer night imply.

“Have you had the chance to study our family line?” Richard asked. Erin shook her head, so he continued, “Understandable, I guess. Though I’ll expect you to be more familiar with our history when next we meet. Our family has a reputation for academic excellence. The entire fraternity generally performs higher than the university average, but our family in particular has always been strong. I chose you to join us for a reason. Any first year who can discuss quantum physics and play chess at the same time has potential. It’s just the application of that potential that you seem to be having trouble with. I had hoped, and your pledgemaster agrees with me, that an early intervention may be helpful in your case.”

Her earlier nerves returning, Erin shifted in her seat and glanced toward the door. “But I thought you said we were just here to talk?”

Richard almost chuckled knowingly at her apprehension, but stopped himself before it became more than a glimmer in his eyes. “Yes, that may be all that we do. Typically we don’t punish pledges for the first offense. A warning usually suffices, and, of course, your participation in this particular aspect of our order is optional. However, living up to our academic expectations is not optional, so you have a choice. You can walk away now, knowing that you need to improve your work, and either face the paddle later or drop out of the pledge process if you fail to do so. Or you can take a paddling now and not live in fear of what might happen next time, not to mention that you’ll have a healthy dose of motivation.”

Seeing that she was still hesitant, though not quite as frightened as a few minutes before, he continued, “I’d like to think that we know each other fairly well at this point. I think that having this kind of consequence could help your focus, though I had wished it wouldn’t be necessary. I’d also like to think that you trust me enough to know how far to push you. I wouldn’t suggest it, especially not now, if I didn’t think you were capable of more. I do truly want to help you. I’d hate to see you forced to leave.”

Seeing the concern in his expression, Erin again considered the paddle lying between them. Very slowly, she nodded.

“I need to hear it,” Richard said gently. “It’s fraternal policy. I need your explicit oral consent.”

“Yes. I agree. I accept this punishment,” Erin replied shakily. She shrugged and seemed to pull herself together before asking “How do we do this anyway?”

“Stand up,” Richard instructed has he grabbed the paddle and moved to join her on the other side of the desk. “Lower your jeans, and bend over so your elbows are resting on the desk.” He turned his back as Erin slowly complied. When her rustling stopped, he turned back to find her in the requested position.

“Twelve swats,” Richard stated. “The first punishment is always twelve. After that, the number is adjusted based on your previous response and the severity of your offense. Understood?” Erin nodded, too anxious to speak. Seeing her tension, Richard rested a hand on her back to calm her. “Typically punishments are applied bare, though you can keep your undergarments up this time. You’re taking a big enough step as it is. Next time though, they will be taken down.” Despite her panic, Erin recognized that there was no “if” associated with his use of “next time.” Before she had much chance to ponder this the first swat landed.

She knew it would hurt, though she never suspected it would hurt as much as it did. She also knew it would be loud, but hadn’t expected it to be quite so loud. How could they possibly keep this a secret when the whole campus could hear? Soon the pain drowned out this and all other thoughts. She fought for control, not wanting to disappoint Richard any further, but well before the midpoint she was pleading and promising to work harder. By the time Richard had finished she was sobbing. She heard him set down the paddle and felt his hand move to her shoulder. She turned away from him to hide her tears, but he pulled her into a hug.

“You understand why I thought this would help you?” Richard asked when her crying had abated. Erin nodded and he continued a bit more sternly, “and you understand that I will do this again whenever it is needed, and that I won’t let you off so easily next time?”

“Yes, sir,” Erin mumbled, blushing.

Richard couldn’t stop the chuckle. “Not a title typically used in these situations, but I could get used to it,” he said, hugging her again before she could get too embarrassed. “Now off to bed with you. You have plenty of work to be getting on with in the morning.” Erin shuffled off to the door.

“Welcome to the order,” he added as she was about to leave. She turned back with a questioning glance. “Oh sure, there are rituals and ceremonies, but as far as I’m concerned you’re one of us now,” Richard winked at her and waved her out the door.

She winced with every step as she walked back to her dorm room, trying to formulate a plan to keep her roommate from discovering the gory details of the pledge process. Each story she ran through in her mind to explain her unnatural gait sounded more ludicrous than the last. Best not to worry about it, Erin decided. After all, she very much doubted this was the last time she and Richard would have this type of discussion, and he didn’t seem like he would be any easier on her in the future.

***

“Yes,” Erin replied shakily unnerved by the distance in Samantha’s expression, then stronger, “Yes.” She was coming home.

“Very well then,” her Guide replied, showing no emotion as she slipped the hoodwink over Erin’s head and her world went dark.

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